An ecclesiological approach on the road to the Holy and Great Synod -112 January 2016
The Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement
An ecclesiological approach on the road to the Holy and great Synod
‘The Ecumenical Movement… is the greatest and most valuable ecclesiastical acquisition of the last century; maintaining, deepening enriching and stabilising it is the main obligation of Christians, primarily their leaders and shepherds, as well as of institutions and theological schools of all kinds during the current 21st century’. These words, from a person well-respected for his long and active involvement in the ecumenical dialogue, express precisely the task facing the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, as regards its ecumenical duty.
After a long period of institutionalized isolation, of harsh prejudices over centuries, and very bitter confessional competition, a new page opened at the start of the 20th century, a new era in ecclesiastical history dawned, one characterized by a genuine and practical desire on the part of Christians to find opportunities for rapprochement, mutual acquaintance, cooperation and theological dialogue. In the midst of rapid social and political changes and crises, the Orthodox Churches, led by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, felt the need for the unity of the Churches and their common witness in a world seeking fresh orientation.
At the dawn of the 20th century, then, Orthodoxy entered onto the stage of the Ecumenical Movement with direct and significant actions: the Patriarchal Encyclicals of 1902 and 1904, and particularly that of 1920, referred with particular emphasis to the importance of strengthening the ties between the Orthodox Churches, as well as those with other Christian churches, in an ecumenical perspective. These letters are of very great importance. They were precursors of the main coordinates of the presence of the Orthodox Church in the broader Christian milieu and cleared the air for the start of the process of Synods in the Orthodox Church, which was promoted through the new institution of the Pan-Orthodox Conferences introduced by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras.
The participation of the Orthodox Churches in the Ecumenical Movement facilitated and hastened this process. It is considered certain that the growth of the Ecumenical Movement inspired Patriarch Athenagoras to convene the 1st Pan-Orthodox Conference in Rhodes in 1961, as well as the others which followed in 1963 and 1964 in Rhodes and in Chambésy, Geneva in 1968.
The Pan-Orthodox Conferences and the progress of the synods towards the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, a kind of ‘intra-Orthodox ecumenical movement’ one might say, were tools for expressing the unity and universality of the Orthodox Church and led the Orthodox to acquire a new ‘view’ of Orthodoxy and also equipped them for a consistent presence and commitment to the Ecumenical Movement.
In particular, the 1st Pan-Orthodox Conference in Rhodes in 1961 and the 4th in Chambésy in 1968 cleared the way for the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Synod consultations, confirmed the ‘presence and participation of the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement, in the spirit of the Patriarchal Encyclical of 1920’, tabled- for the first time on a Pan-Orthodox level- certain desiderata to the WCC, and, as Ioannis Karmiris has noted, through the Memoranda of the Conferences, the Orthodox Church appeared to the divided world ‘as a sign of unity’ as a ‘bridging Church’ and as an ‘evangelist of love’.
This was the perspective which motivated the 1st Pre-Synod Pan-Orthodox Meeting in Chambésy in 1976, which dealt, in particular, with the issue of the position of the Orthodox Church within the Ecumenical Movement and, in particular, the WCC. The Meeting made significant proposals concerning the ecclesiological conditions required for a well-conducted dialogue and for a substantial Orthodox contribution to the matter of ecumenical Christian unity.
Over the following years, as a consequence of the decisions of the Pan-Orthodox Conferences, the Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical Movement increased significantly and the contribution by the Orthodox Churches became more dynamic, worthwhile and creative.